Thursday, June 5, 2014

Judicial Independence Under Attack in Guatemala

"This jeopardizes judicial independence and the rule of law. It means that anyone can, without grounds, accuse a judge to avoid being prosecuted. This opens the door to impunity and corruption. … Judicial independence is a guarantee, more than for the judge, it is a guarantee for Guatemalans to be able to depend on honorable and dignified judges."  -Guatemalan Judge Yassmín Barrios

Photo by Nerun (Wikimedia Commons)
Judge Yassmín Barrios has presided over some of Guatemala’s most sensitive cases, such as the trial of the Army officers accused of murdering Bishop Juan Gerardi in 2001, the Dos Erres massacre case and a number of high-profile cases involving gangs and drug cartels.

One of her most recent cases involved the trial of former dictator Gen. Efraín Ríos Montt (1982-1983), who faced charges of genocide and crimes against humanity. Although Ríos Montt was found guilty in 2013, the Corte de Constitucionalidad (CC), under pressure from Guatemala’s conservative business establishment, controversially overturned the verdict.

 Local and international human rights organizations strongly condemned the reversal and have argued that it runs contrary to the principle of judicial independence.

And the concept of judicial independence also came under attack with an action directed against Barrios herself. In April of this year, the Tribunal de Honor of the Colegio de Abogados y Notarios de Guatemala (CANG) temporarily suspended the judge from practicing law for one year and ordered her to pay a US$650 fine. The tribunal's decision was based on a complaint filed by attorney Moisés Galindo, defense counsel for José Mauricio Rodríguez, director of intelligence under the Ríos Montt regime and his co-accused in the genocide trial.

Barrios appealed the suspension, and a few weeks later, the Asamblea de los Presidentes de los Colegios Profesionalesr uled that Judge Barrios had acted wrongly by ordering Galindo to represent Ríos Montt but that the alleged misdemeanor was not serious enough to require her suspension and resolved that both the fine and the suspension should be revoked. Read more from Louisa Reynolds in this week's issue of NotiCen.

NGOs Weigh In
Is the legal system in Guatemala (and elsewhere in Central America) too politicized?  At a hearing held by the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) on the politicization of judicial branches in Central America, the petitioner from Guatemala argued that the upper level courts in the regions are influenced by political party interests as a result of the political commitments judges assume when appointed because the legislature appoints upper level judges in most countries. The criteria that the legislature uses are not based on a judge’s judicial record but on their political allegiance.

Some organizations like Impunity Watch (IW) suggest that problems with the judicial system in Guatemala are compounded by systemic flaws. It is well known that the design of the justice system in Guatemala has flaws that favour impunity. Some initiatives for reforming justice in stitutions have been promoted by national and international, state and non-state act ors. Initiatives for constitutional reform have focused on two major areas: improving the Guat emalan justice institutions and improving the domestic legal provisions by correcting loopholes, as well as changing troublesome laws.  Read IW's full brief posted in March 2013.

Other articles in the Latin America Data Base newsletters for May 28-30 address two livestock-related issues.  In Cuba, the livestock industry is in disarray, and in Mexico, a deadly virus has been detected among hog herds in 17 states. Poverty is a theme in three other articles. In Mexico, the Catholic Church is challenging President Enrique Peña Nieto's administration to ensure reforms benefit the poorest segments of the population.  In Peru, expatriates are helping support the economy with remittances. Elsewhere in South America, the countries of the Southern Cone have done a good job in reducing hunger and poverty, according to experts from several multilateral institutions.

 -Carlos Navarro

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